Is it possible to reach critical mass for words consumed? Is there a point where the human brain loses its ability to comprehend the written word? Before last week, I would have said no. One might exhaust topics or genres but the act of reading is too innate, too treasured and too deeply ingrained.
But having willingly read over 4,720 fiction pages in less than 72 hours, I am reconsidering the tenacity of the human brain.
According to scientists, the human brain has 100 billion neurons and consumes 20 percent of our energy despite constituting only 2 percent of our bodily mass. Neurons fire electrical charges, allowing the human brain to process our surroundings. By marvels of creation, neurons allow humans to interpret abstract external stimuli.
Reading books is the ultimate application of the human brain. When we read, we recall culturally established, predetermined feelings and concepts. But the reading process is not simply a rote exchange of ideas. Like other arts, reading is fantastically collaborative. The author strings together lines that the reader interprets. Reading is thus a continual process, forever in a state of innovation and flux.
The reader approaches the words on the page through two lenses. The first lens is a practiced understanding of how words form and combine into sentences with external significance. This rehearsed association is how you recognize the word “apple” as the red fruit that hangs from trees in the fall. The second and more innovative lens is the reader’s ability to attach feelings and abstract thinking to disparate terms. As part of cognitive mapping, the reader recognizes the sign “apple” and begins thinking of adjacent signifiers. When used in conjunction with more words, the initial sign “apple” may evoke a more abstract feeling of autumnal nostalgia or even recall biblical archetypes.
Though a passage may not have been intended to evoke a specific reaction, the written word serves as an eternal open duet. Words on the page are perpetually waiting for another intellectual dance partner. In that sense, every sentence written is fundamentally incomplete, waiting for a willing interpreter to fill in the unseen gaps, completing the work with their own mental links and neural framework.
However, that process of superimposing emotions and interpretations onto the page relies on a flawed psychological mechanism. Reading only works when words continue to hold meaning. If the initial lens (successfully associating a written word with its corresponding meaning) gets corrupted, then the collaborative process is obstructed from the start.
Words and language mean things because concepts and meanings get assigned to them, and those assigned meanings are continuously affirmed through consensus of the body. The links between words and their significance are not innate. Plenty of human cultures eschew a written language and still communicate seamlessly. Literacy is a cultural process, maintained and strengthened by the culture that propagates it. This is the reason, for example, that the word “cleave” can hold two contradictory and diametrically opposed definitions. The masses have agreed to allow “cleave’s” contradiction to exist. But without the consensus of an abstract Leviathan, abstract words lose their significance. Therefore, the biggest threat to a society reliant upon abstract data processing is when those conceptual ties get severed.
I cannot help but consider the “tipping point” for the modern brain. Often mentioned in environmentalist spaces, the “tipping point” is the moment when enough benign, everyday actions push our climate into irreversible catastrophe. We live in the twenty-first century, an age where words and meaning get fuzzy, with the phenomenon accelerated by our fast meme culture and Trumpian politics. Too much exposure can grind down the best, most well-equipped mind.
So the question remains, when does language and reading break? At what benchmark does the human brain give out while reading — exhausted and unable to comprehend the tricky-dicky links between the written word and their finicky significance?
In a sum of three days with limited sleeping breaks, I mainlined two fantasy series, one novella and two adult fiction novels. By the end of the final (and most mediocre) book, I found myself nauseous and unable to maintain cognitive function. By foraying to the outer bounds of my literate-brain-processing ability, it became clear that a limit does exist.
There is a stimuli-signal processing threshold where your body and brain can collectively decide that they are no longer along for the ride. In the 12 hours recovering from my binge reading, my eyes skipped over large email text blocks and I was unable to parse through more lengthy texts without multiple re-reads.
Do yourself a favor and take a break from the screen or the page. Maybe take a walk.
Daily Book Review Editor Elizabeth Yoon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.